When LAIKA released its first film Coraline in 2009, artists were able to create 207,000 possible facial expressions for the Coraline puppet. Seven years later, Kubo of Kubo and the Two Strings could convey a plethora of emotions via 45 million potential expressions.
LAIKA relentlessly pushes the creative boundaries of stop-motion filmmaking, a unique style of animation that combines real physical sets and puppets with visual effects.
A little magic takes a lot of work
“It’s a magical art form, but it’s also very technical and incredibly time-consuming,” said Steve Emerson, VFX supervisor at LAIKA. “As our films have grown in complexity and scale, maintaining an accurate schedule has become more of a challenge since much of this process has been done by hand and informed by gut instinct.”
With every advance that adds texture and depth comes more complexity for the production schedule—more minutiae to be managed across teams to meet deadlines and budgets. Never satisfied with the status quo, LAIKA has partnered with Autodesk to push the boundaries on production schedule management.
In the movie-making industry, schedule optimization is known as leveling. It’s a tedious but necessary process to maximize resources, minimize downtime, and evenly spread the workload. On a recent project, the puppet schedule alone involved 12,000 tasks for 300 assets across 60 team members. In the past, the leveling process required project management tools, Excel spreadsheets, and file exports and imports. And when an inevitable change happened, manual updates across multiple data sets would ensue.
The solution was to bring together all those disconnected data points into a single cloud-based environment, so they could be optimized. Autodesk’s production management software ShotGrid became the foundation from which LAIKA created a new workflow that combines data modeling, day-to-day task management, and machine learning. The result is an automated leveling process. And what would have taken a human weeks to accomplish, now happens in minutes.
“The first time we got a schedule back was a big ‘aha’ moment,” said Emerson. “Since the generated schedules are highly optimized, they don’t waste a second of anybody’s time. And they can be adjusted on the fly, accounting for different variables.”
“It’s a magical art form, but it’s also very technical and incredibly time-consuming. As our films have grown in complexity and scale, maintaining an accurate schedule has become more of a challenge since much of this process has been done by hand and informed by gut instinct.”
An industry under pressure to deliver more, faster
Maximizing resources has always been important, but it’s taken on a new dimension since the pandemic. Now more than ever, entertainment companies are under pressure to quickly generate new, more immersive content to feed an insatiable global audience. COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of streaming services, with consumers more willing to experiment with a wide variety of formats and providers, according to a United Talent Agency report. Entertainment consumption surged during the height of COVID-19, and it’s likely to sustain—67% of consumers say they’ll continue to spend more time gaming, binge-watching, and listening to entertainment post-pandemic. In addition, as the post-pandemic theatrical business continues to rebound, audiences clamor for more impactful in-person theatrical experiences.
To meet this demand and seize the opportunity, studios need new solutions to old problems. The longstanding divide between creative and technical processes is exacerbated by disconnected data and broken workflows between artists, creative directors, producers, production managers, and everyone else in between. But a whole new world of possibilities opens up when you break down barriers between those teams and their data. LAIKA’s generative scheduling solution and the resulting optimization are just one example of the impact you can have when people and processes come together in a unified platform environment.
“Production in the cloud is where we are heading,” said Sarah Hodges, VP, Cloud Environment and Services at Autodesk. “Fundamentally, it is all about managing the flow of processes and unlocking efficiencies throughout the pipeline. And we can enable it at scale in the cloud.”
“Production in the cloud is where we are heading. Fundamentally, it is all about managing the flow of processes and unlocking efficiencies throughout the pipeline. And we can enable it at scale in the cloud.”
Unlocking more time to innovate and create
Working across a unified platform to reduce manual tasks like scheduling gives teams time back to create even richer experiences for audiences. But that’s just a sneak peek at how you can make the most of connected data. At LAIKA, Emerson says the studio is looking at artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) to further blend the physical and digital aspects of production. They’re exploring machine learning that recognizes rigging systems, so they can be painted out in post-production, and digital representations of sets that quickly demonstrate shot composition to the director.
Audiences may be pushing for more, bigger, faster. But LAIKA is too.
“We want to push stop-motion as far as we possibly can,” Emerson says. “How can we make it truly exceptional and visually beyond anything that audiences have ever experienced before?”
The answer: make technology the enabler of artistry. By optimizing data, teams, and processes in a connected environment, LAIKA is accelerating its craft. Just imagine the new innovations seven more years will bring to the next Coraline or Kubo.